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What are the four main categories of computer crimes, and what is an example of each one?

The four primary categories of computer crimes are internal computer crimes, telecommunications crimes, computer manipulation crimes, and traditional theft.

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There are many categories of computer crimes. For instance, the New York state penal codes establish legal definitions of various forms of computer crimes that are punishable by fines and potentially even by jail time. Specifically, hacking a computer system is criminal, as is accessing unauthorized data on a computer for which there is authorization of other data, duplicating computer material and sometimes even just possessing the computer material.

Examples of computer crimes are as follows:

1. Hacking: in New York State, a person who uses a computer or a computer network without the prior authorization of the computer / network owner and then changes the owner’s data or computer programs is guilty of a crime. This action refers to “hacking” of the computer or of specific data on the computer system without prior permission. If a person hacks into the computer system and then changes any of the material, that person would have committed some form of what the state calls computer tampering or trespass.

2. Accessing unauthorized data: even if a person is authorized to use the computer but accesses data that is outside of the specific areas for which the person has authorization, it is a crime. For example, if a person works in a company and is authorized to access its database but changes the data in any way without authorization, that person would have committed some form of computer crime.

3. Duplicating computer data Duplicating computer material without authorization is also a crime, especially if the intent is to benefit economically. For instance, if a person duplicates a customer list and sells it to a competitor, that is a crime.

4. Possessing computer data without authorization In many cases, merely possessing computer material with intent to benefit from it economically without authorization from the owner is also a crime. In the above example, the data is duplicated. However, if a person has possession of unauthorized customer lists and shares them with another without actually duplicating them, this is also criminal.

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According to the Library of Congress's Science Reference Services, there are four primary categories of computer crime: internal computer crimes, telecommunications crimes, computer manipulation crimes, and traditional theft. Let's look briefly at each of these.

Internal computer crimes strike at computers themselves in an attempt to interfere with their operations. Viruses and malware are prime examples of this type of crime. Anyone who has have ever had to deal with computer malfunction because of a virus knows the frustration this kind of crime can cause, not to mention the fear of losing personal information.

Telecommunications crimes usually involve an attempt to gain access to the personal data stored on a computer. Hacking is an example of this kind of crime, as is phreaking (tapping into a telephone system). Many people have had their login information, their credit card numbers, and even their identities stolen through this kind of crime.

Computer manipulation involves misusing a computer and/or altering data for the purpose of fraud or embezzlement. Phishing is a prime example of this kind of crime. Scammers send emails that look official from various companies like Amazon or PayPal in hopes of deceiving recipients, making them panic, and leading them to enter their personal information into fake websites, thereby stealing their data.

Traditional theft refers to stealing computer hardware or software. Software piracy falls under this category; criminals sell illegal copies of software for their own profit.

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Different people have different lists of types of computer crimes.  Here is a list of four main types of crimes, with a fifth type that is sometimes added to the four:

  • Internal computer crimes
  • Telecommunications crimes
  • Computer manipulation crimes
  • Theft of computer hardware or software
  • Use of computers in support of other crimes

Internal computer crimes are things like the planting of viruses in people’s computers.  We can see an example of this in the article below.  In that incident, an employee of the financial services company UBS planted malicious software in company computers because he was angry about not getting a large enough bonus.  His act cost the company millions of dollars in clean-up costs and undisclosed amounts of lost business.

The best-known type of telecommunications crime is hacking.  This is called “telecommunications crime” because the criminal uses long-distance communications to illegally access a computer network.  In 2014, a famous example of this occurred in which Target had the credit card data of millions of its customers stolen. 

Computer manipulation crimes are simply crimes in which a person manipulates computer files to cover up crimes they have committed.  This typically consists of covering up embezzlement.  This is a very common type of crime as it requires very little expertise. For example, in a town near where I live, a church employee used a church credit card to buy personal items and covered his tracks by changing computer records of the transactions.

Theft of computer hardware or software includes, most famously, software piracy.  The best-known example of this is file-sharing.  Every person who downloads a movie or an album from a torrent site is committing this crime.  It is, of course, immensely widespread today.

The use of computers in support of other crimes is a computer crime that is not always categorized as such.  This is because the computer is really incidental to the crime in much the same way that a getaway car is rather incidental to the actual crime of robbery.  This can include any sort of crime where computers are used.  For example, most fake documents are made using computers and printers. 

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